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A Guide to Open Government and the Coronavirus: Justice

Guía de gobierno abierto y coronavirus: Justicia

Guide pour un gouvernement ouvert et le Coronavirus: Justice

Open Response Teal

Recommendations | Examples | Resources | Partners | Back to Main

People can encounter justice problems in nearly every aspect of life, including health, employment, education, housing and public safety. Even before COVID-19, 1.5 billion people worldwide had unresolved justice problems. Current justice systems, with their opaque processes, unequal access, and discrimination, only provide justice for the few, leaving the majority of the marginalized and poor excluded from meaningful access to justice.

COVID-19 is increasing this justice gap, which will further exacerbate existing inequalities. The number of people’s justice problems is increasing rapidly as they lose jobs, run into difficulties paying bills, try to access healthcare, deal with inheritance issues, and come across other direct and indirect consequences of the pandemic and emergency measures. The crisis underscores the need to protect vulnerable populations’ fundamental rights such as health, adequate housing, water and sanitation, and social security. This increases the need for people-centered justice services that focus on resolving people’s justice problems and empowering people and communities. The crisis also demands that justice systems adapt to ensure essential and urgent needs are met. For instance, the demand for justice assistance by victims of domestic violence has increased during the pandemic. Additional and alternative modes of remediation must be accessible to protect women, children and the elderly from violence. In this vein, the financing and protection of grassroots justice defenders has become even more pressing during the crisis, as their role as direct liaison to communities makes them integral to pandemic response and recovery efforts.

Additionally, COVID-19 has demonstrated that citizens’ compliance with emergency measures is closely related to trust that these policies are fair and comply with international human rights standards. Governments should proactively incorporate transparency and accountability mechanisms into decision-making related to the pandemic. Importantly, establishing the conditions and practices of a more open justice system will help build the necessary trust between citizens and government in the long term.

Recommendations

The recommendations below are drawn primarily from the publication Justice in a Pandemic by the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies and 50 partners from around the world, as well as from the Justice for All campaign’s policy paper Grassroots Justice in a Pandemic, and resources from Namati, Access-Info, Amnesty International, CIVICUS, Penal Reform International, the International Legal Foundation, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association in the United States, etc.

Open Response:

Open response measures place transparency, accountability, and participation at the center of immediate government efforts to curb contagion and provide emergency assistance.

Data collection 

  • Gather and act on information from the justice frontline: Specifically, examine interactions between police and people, people’s experiences in accessing social benefits and coping with new COVID-19 containment measures, conditions in prisons and other high-risk environments, and challenges faced by grassroots justice defenders. Conflicts and attacks must be recorded and reported by human rights commissions or ombudsman offices.
  • Survey public experiences and perceptions, watching for early signals of a decline in the legitimacy of the justice system, worsening perceptions of social or economic injustice or inequitable provision of services, or weakening trust in public health information.
  • Mine existing data sources, especially legal needs surveys, to understand pre-existing justice problems and to identify those that are likely to be exacerbated by COVID-19.

Access to justice

  • Fund innovations that provide remote justice services, including in courts and detention centers.
  • Expand helplines and other specialized justice and protection services aimed at women and children, as well as members of the LGBTQIA+ communities and persons, and create more safe spaces for adults and children who need to escape their homes.
  • Create more channels for accessing justice by challenging monopolies that block the entry of paralegals, low-cost mediators, and digital legal services, and by suspending regulations that limit smart working, flexible responses and non-lawyer legal assistance.
  • Draw on the experience of the private sector and of alternative and community-based dispute resolution mechanisms.

Open and accountable justice

  • Publish laws and regulations in publicly accessible places and online, making them available rapidly.
  • Ensure transparency on implementation of emergency measures, including on police action, sanctions imposed, and court processes. Transparency should also apply to quarantine measures, travel restrictions, and border controls.
  • Ensure technology use, particularly for surveillance, respects the privacy and rights of grassroots justice defenders and their clients. Any such emergency measures must be non-intrusive, limited in time and purpose, and abide by international human rights standards.
  • Publish updated statistics about crime and people’s justice problems, particularly on domestic violence. Proactively share information on resolution and resources on assistance.
  • Make courts’ deliberations and decisions available, online or through radio or television, with plain language explanations of court decisions and motivations.
  • Empower accountability institutions, such as ombuds-institutes, national human rights institutions, and parliamentary committees to scrutinize new policies and hold political leaders to account.
  • Support grassroots justice actors to monitor and report on the delivery of public services, to help ensure those most in need receive treatment, and to identify and respond to abuses by security services.
  • Create new forms of institutional oversight, such as community score cards that verify whether allocated funds have reached their targets to monitor health and stimulus spending.
  • Ensure that attacks on justice defenders are investigated and those responsible are prosecuted under due process.

Capacity and funding

  • Continue to pay frontline justice workers, with international financing and support where necessary.
  • Rapidly redirect funding towards online service delivery, such as public information campaigns, helplines, and online mediation of disputes.
  • Fund justice – include people-centered justice in stimulus packages, protect the justice system when indebted countries seek an international bailout, and maintain or expand justice’s share of overseas development assistance.
  • Enlist law firms’ pro bono capacity and provide legal empowerment and voluntary networks the funding they need to be effective.

Collaboration and partnerships

  • Establish a cross-sectoral pandemic task force under the Ministry of Justice, with representation from all levels of government, to assess justice system needs and prioritize responses.
  • Convene a multi-stakeholder group to provide input and coordinate effective responses to the crisis.

Open Recovery and Reform:

Open recovery measures place transparency, accountability, and participation at the center of medium-term government efforts to rebuild in the wake of COVID-19. Similarly, open reform initiatives ensure that the public is at the heart of government in the post-pandemic world.

Access to justice

  • Expand direct legal services, particularly in the areas of evictions, property disputes, debt and bankruptcy, family law, wills, benefits, and elder law.
  • Maintain funding and services of online justice courts and other helplines, as the additional capacity will help reduce the backlog.
  • Use technology to create materials to explain legal information to individuals and families.

Open and accountable justice

  • Publish documents related to decision-making about emergency measures and how they will be ratcheted down to reassure the public that there is a clear pathway towards normalization.
  • Proactively encourage the use of complaint mechanisms as a place for people to turn if they experience problems with local authorities and misuse of measures during the recovery phase.

Capacity and funding

  • Educate new categories of paraprofessionals to respond to civil legal issues through online learning or certificate programs, or through retooling employees towards legal service provision.
  • Promote policy change to create more options for legal service provision, including new business models and additional actors in the legal services ecosystem.

Examples

The following examples are recent initiatives in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and are drawn from our crowdsourced list as well as partner materials.

Support to victims of domestic violence

  • Croatia launched the campaign “Behind the doors” – a joint initiative of the Ministry of the Interior and the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center – which aims to facilitate reporting of domestic violence cases that are on the rise during the pandemic.
  • The French government will pay for 20,000 hotel nights for victims of domestic abuse and will create pop-up counselling centers at stores in order for women to seek help while they run errands.
  • Morocco established a toll-free number, “8350,” for protection of domestic violence victims, alongside a campaign launched by the National Union of Women of Morocco (UNFM).
  • In Ontario, $4 million CAD was dedicated to support services for victims of domestic violence and other violent crimes. This one-time emergency payment will help more than 50 community agencies, including victim crisis assistance organizations, indigenous organizations, and those based in rural areas, to stay operational and accessible to victims during the public health crisis.

Expanding legal aid

  • The United States has included $50 million in the $2 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package to the Legal Services Corporation, which will support 132 legal aid organisations with assisting low-income clients facing job losses, evictions, and other problems stemming from the pandemic. An additional $2 million was included for justice information-sharing technology to promote video conferencing abilities for prison health care and court proceedings.

Access to information about services

  • Portugal created a webpage that compiles resources for citizens needing a variety of services, including information about the functions of courts and justice institutions during the lockdown.
  • Given increasing questions regarding child and family support and other family law matters, the Department of Justice in Canada developed a Frequently Asked Questions page with information on family support obligations during Covid-19.

Remote and rapid legal advice

  • In South Africa, a new Legal Hotline has been set up for those who need legal help and advice during the country’s lockdown.
  • In the United States, Pro Bono Net and its legal aid partners now conduct remote, rapid-response legal rights outreach to educate people about frequent changes to the policy environment around workers’ rights and evictions.
  • In the Philippines, Ateneo Human Rights Center offers online legal counseling for questions about arrests related to curfew, discrimination to health care workers, and more.
  • In Sierra Leone, AdvocAid adapted strategies to continue legal and psycho-social support for women in prison, by increasing for example communication and legal empowerment sessions with detainees by phone.

Expanding access through technology

  • In India, in cooperation with governments, civil society, and corporate partners, empowerment organisation Haqdarshak developed a mobile app and web portal that helps citizens understand and access COVID-19 relief programs offering basic rations, food, and loans.
  • In Buenos Aires, Argentina the city’s judicial branch is modeling flexible and accountable ways of administering effective justice through the use of technology.

Advocacy

  • In Argentina, Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y Justicia (ACIJ) and other grassroots organizations lobbied local government to secure adequate housing for the homeless while a lockdown was in effect. ACIJ also distributed short materials and videos throughout poor neighborhoods with information about their rights.

Coordination

  • In Canada, the Department of Justice and the Supreme Court established an “Action Committee on Court Operations” which develops court-specific health and safety guidelines that can be adapted to the needs of individual courts and communities, in order to ensure safe and accessible justice services for citizens.

The following examples are commitments previously made by OGP members that demonstrate elements of the recommendations made above.

  • Afghanistan (2017-2019): Committed to establishing special courts to address violence against women in 15 additional provinces.
  • Albania (2012-2014): Committed to providing audio and video recordings of judicial hearings in 14 regional courts.
  • Colombia (2015-2017): Committed to implementing a web portal and mobile application called LegalApp to facilitate public access to information on justice services.
  • Indonesia (2018-2020): Committed to increasing the availability and quality of legal aid.
  • South Africa (2016-2018): Committed to integrating Community Advice Offices as a grassroots and permanent part of the wider justice system.
  • United States (2015-2016): Committed to diversifying funding for legal aid.
  • United States (2015-2017): Committed to providing police open data across jurisdictions in a national database.

Resources

  • The Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies and 50 global partners are publishing a series of briefings describing the effects and demands on the justice system by different dimensions of the pandemic. The first briefing sets out recommendations for how justice systems and actors should respond to the health impacts of the pandemic. The second briefing explores the justice implications of the economic, employment and financial crisis associated with the pandemic. A forthcoming briefing will address the longer-term justice approaches needed to address the political, social and cultural dislocation resulting from COVID-19.
  • Pathfinders has also published a short review of how courts globally are embracing innovations to perform their functions, with concrete examples that can be replicated.
  • The number of justice problems that women face is increasing during COVID-19, due to lockdowns and economic hardship, while the capacity to resolve these problems is decreasing. A joint report from UN Women, IDLO, UNDP, UNODC, the World and Pathfinders, supported by the Elders, gathers available data and puts forth recommendations to accelerate action and increase justice for women.
  • Namati’s online space dedicated to COVID-19 includes a living document collecting useful resources on protecting vulnerable communities affected by containment measures, such as prisoners and pretrial detainees, migrants, domestic violence survivors, and residents of informal settlements. It also includes the recording of a recent webinar on how legal empowerment work can address the justice challenges brought about or aggravated by the pandemic.
  • The Justice for All campaign’s paper – Grassroots Justice in a Pandemic: Ensuring a Just Response and Recovery – offers recommendations for policymakers, donors, and multilateral institutions on how to finance and protect grassroots justice defenders during and after the pandemic.
  • The Open Society Justice Initiative and The Engine Room published a review of how legal empowerment actors worldwide are using technology to give people information about the law, connect them with legal advice, and provide them with legal services. It includes examples that can be taken up as models by other countries.
  • The International Legal Foundation’s (ILF) COVID-19 webpage includes technical guidance for legal aid providers to protect the health and human rights of detainees, and outlines how ILF has responded to the pandemic through high-level advocacy, implementation, strategic litigation and petitions for mass release, fighting case by case.
  • OGP and Open Society Justice Initiative hosted a virtual conversation with experts from Canada’s Department of Justice, AdvocAid (Sierra Leone), the ILF (Afghanistan), and Article 19 South America. The discussion highlighted promising practices in protecting access to justice during a crisis from across the globe.

Partners who can
provide further support and information

Our thanks to the Pathfinders and Namati for sharing recommendations and reviewing this module.

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